Mazda’s biggest machine introduces a new turbocharged engine bringing what SUV buyers want most, low end torque. Rob Maetzig drives the new sevenseater CX-9 in L.A.
Julien Montouse, the director of design for Mazda’s North American operations, put it succinctly during the world reveal of the Japanese brand’s new CX-9. Mazda is not a performance-centric company, he said - but a family-centric company.
Those few words perfectly underlined what this new SUV is all about. It moves its attention away from any need for top-end performance, concentrating instead on doing the best it can at the lower end of the engine rev band where owners of such vehicles operate almost all of the time.
In fact, journalists were told during a briefing in Los Angeles that most motorists hardly ever get above 3000rpm, and never push their engines over 4000rpm.
“So we have responded to this research in our development of the new CX-9,” said Montouse. “We’re not necessarily losing sportiness - but we are wanting to connect with what happens in the real motoring world.”
Very important point that, and something that was promptly proven as journalists headed out on a drive programme through Los Angeles in heavily camouflaged pre-production CX-9s. The new SUV was scheduled to be publicly unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show two days later, but the writers got time behind the wheel anyway, touring through many of LA’s well known thoroughfares.
If truth be known, ‘tour’ probably wasn’t the best description of the drive. It was more stop-start through the Melrose Aves and Rodeo Drives of downtown LA, with a short run along one of the freeways and a bit of a burst along the well known racer road, Mulholland Drive. All in a hand-built prototype that Mazda really, really wanted back. So the event was hardly a hard-out road test.
But the occasion did succeed in illustrating what Mazda has done with the new CX-9. The company has taken the
SkyActiv 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine many New Zealanders know so well from the Mazda3, Mazda6 and CX-5, and turbocharged it. As a result, instead of the engine offering the normally aspirated version’s 138kW and 250 Newtons of torque, the turbo offers 186kW at 5000rpm and 420Nm at 2000rpm.
Importantly, all this torque is available from basement revs, which the Mazda research shows is where most people drive their vehicles. The current CX-9, which is powered by a Ford-sourced 3.7-litre V6, develops 204kW, and its 367Nm of torque tops out at 4250 rpm.
A feature of the new engine is what Mazda calls Dynamic Pressure Turbo, which is the world’s first turbocharger with the ability to vary the degree of exhaust pulse depending on engine speed. The DPT routes engine exhaust to the turbocharger’s turbine through small ports at low revolutions - Mazda describes the process as being akin to placing a thumb over a garden hose to create a stronger amount of pressure through a smaller outlet - and this allows the turbo to spool up extremely quickly for almost instant boost. Then when the engine is in the heart of its rev range it opens up secondary valves, allowing greater amounts of exhaust gas to pass through the turbocharger.
Further helping the CX-9 to maximise turbocharger efficiency is a 4-3-1 exhaust. With this set-up, the exhaust from the middle two cylinders is joined into a single port, while the exhausts from the outer cylinders have their own ports. These three ports merge at the entrance to the turbocharger’s exhaust side, where there is always one exhaust pulse arriving every 180 degrees of crankshaft rotation. Not only does this very compact manifold keep the exhaust pulses separate for maximum energy extraction, but it also harnesses each exhaust pulse to suck residual exhaust from the adjacent ports.
But wait, there’s more. In an effort to increase fuel efficiency, the 2.5T has a cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) system which helps overcome what Mazda engineers describe as the dirty little secret of turbocharged engines - they control heat by
adding raw fuel to the combustion chamber, and that’s why such engines are notorious for their high fuel use when driven hard.
But the cooled EGR helps bring engine temperatures down from approximately 500C to just over 100C, allowing the 2.5T to operate with a compression ratio of 10.5:1, which is one of the highest of any petrol-powered turbocharged engine.
The net result of all of this is the high torque at low revolutions, and improved fuel economy. No official figures are yet available for the new CX-9, but Mazda estimates at least a 20 per cent improvement on the 11L/100km claimed for the current model. Helping things along is the fact the new model is up to 100 kg lighter than the CX-9 it replaces.
The current CX-9 is the last Mazda passenger vehicle sold in New Zealand to share componentry with Ford. Thanks to that brand’s previous 33 per cent ownership of Mazda, the outgoing CX-9 is built on the same CD3 platform as some Ford SUV product, and it has the Ford powertrain. But the new model is all Mazda, and as such it will offer all the SkyActiv platform, powertrain and safety technologies that have already proved successful in every other member of Mazda’s passenger vehicle range.
The new CX-9 has exterior lines that follow Mazda’s Kodo design philosophy, as seen in the smaller CX-3 and CX-5 SUVs, and there is a strong visual similarity between all three of the vehicles. It is a good-looking SUV with a distinctively designed nose.
The body is 30mm shorter than the current model, but its wheelbase has been extended by 55mm so there is better room inside. Front and rear overhangs are also shorter than before, and the A-pillar has been moved back 100mm in an effort to give the SUV a stronger look via a longer bonnet area. Julien Montouse described the CX-9 as offering a “planted” look via a sleek upper body and stable lower area.
Mazda claims that the CX-9’s lighter weight combines with SkyActiv chassis technology to give the vehicle a much improved drive. During our sortie out into the streets of LA it was hard to judge any of the driving dynamics, but one thing that did become immediately clear was its level of refinement.
Around 20kg more sound insulation has been added to the vehicle when compared to the current CX-9, including 500 per cent more sound deadening material under the carpets, use of thicker sheet metal for the floor panels, and sound-blocking plastics all round. As a result of all this, at 100km/h, interior noise levels are said to be reduced by 12 per cent.
When the new CX-9 arrives in New Zealand during the second half of 2016, it will be available with both front- and all-wheel drive options. The AWD version uses Mazda’s i-ACTIV system that was pioneered on the smaller CX-5 and which uses 22 different sensors to predict road conditions and direct torque to the rear wheels when necessary. The SUV will also carry a suite of i-ACTIVSENSE active safety features including blind spot monitoring, radar-based cruise control, lane-keep assist, high-beam control, and smart city brake support.
Mazda New Zealand managing director Andrew Clearwater says the new CX-9 will arrive at a perfect time for the company.
“Given that there continues to be strong growth in SUV sales in the New Zealand market, the new CX-9 will provide us with a great opportunity to increase our sales,” he says. The current CX-9 sells at a rate of about 20 a month, which represents 7 per cent of large SUV sales.
Clearwater is unable to say at this early stage what the new CX-9’s levels of specification or pricing will be. But if the retail prices of the existing CX-9 models are any guide, the prices for the new model will run from mid-$50,000 to mid-$60,000.
Familiar Mazda elements in the CX-9’s interior, which is well made. And roomy too. Though overall length is down, interior space is up thanks to a stretch in the wheelbase dimension.